Do you remember the children’s tale of Aladdin? Wandering the streets of Baghdad, Aladdin heard a street vendor crying out, “New lamps for old! New lamps for old!” Aladdin was mystified and curious; why would the vendor want to exchange something new for something old? Something shiny and clean for something worn out and dented and covered with scratches?
Today’s reading from Isaiah might make us scratch our heads like Aladdin: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to… comfort all who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
Well, you don’t need an MBA from Harvard to know that there is something wrong with God’s business sense. God sends Isaiah out like an Amway representative, but instead of buying low and selling high, Isaiah is to trade garlands for ashes, gladness for mourning, the “mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
In other words, new lamps for old.
So, you would think that the people who hear Isaiah’s message would come pouring into the marketplace: the oppressed and brokenhearted, prisoners and those who mourn. Yet, look around you. This is a once in a lifetime, never to be repeated offer, yet very few are taking advantage of it.
God is eager to exchange new lamps for old, divine riches for human poverty, but very few want to accept God’s offer.
But if something is wrong with God’s business sense, something is even more wrong with ours. We clutch at our griefs and sorrows even though God is eager to give us “gladness instead of mourning.”
Irish poet William Butler Yeats coined the phrase, “the rag and bone shop of the heart.” How appropriate is that? When I look at my heart, I see grudges, old hurts, memories of past failures, insults long forgotten by the one who insulted me but which I’ve never forgotten, much less forgiven. What do you see when you look in your heart?
God is ready to exchange new lamps for old, divine treasure for our trash. Yet we hoard petty grievances and old wounds, the real or imagined insults of years long ago.
C.S. Lewis once observed, “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
“New lamps for old” is the theme of the Christian faith from beginning to end. At a wedding feast at Cana, Jesus took water and made rich, sweet wine. He took lameness and gave back two strong legs. He took blindness and gave back the light of day. And finally, upon the cross, Jesus took death itself and gave back life abundant and everlasting.
Ashes, mourning, faith spirits… God takes our trash and returns treasure; God takes these hard, old hearts of ours and gives them back to us new and improved.
In the words of a favorite Christmas carol:
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part:
Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.
The heart is all God asks, but the heart is everything. For in it are the ashes of dashed hopes, the grief that must come to every human being, and the spirit that is faint from a thousand disappointments.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has sent me to proclaim good news to the poor.” God gave Isaiah good news to proclaim to those who taste the ashes of defeat and whose faint spirits struggle to get out of bed in the morning.
In other words, God gave Isaiah good news to proclaim to people just like you and me.
In Advent we anticipate once more the coming among us of this strange God who not only offers us new lamps for old but who chooses to dwell among those who do not have any way of purchasing the merchandise God is offering.
The One who read Isaiah’s words to a synagogue in Nazareth still proclaims good news to the poor whenever the Bible is read, and whenever we share bread and wine in his name, he fills the hungry with good things.